And the Canadian Birkebeiner Makes Three - A Birkebeiner Hat Trick

By Ron Bergin

Hailing, as I do, from the land of the American Birkebeiner and, having an 18-year association with the event either as a participant or behind the scenes, it was easy for me to have some pre-conceived notions about the “other” Birkie, the Canadian Birkebeiner. But after skiing this sister event last February, I gained an entirely new perspective on what it has to offer.

I am also a one-time veteran of the mother of all Birkebeiners and the event that spawned both the American and Canadian Birkies, the Birkebeiner Rennet – the Norwegian Birkebeiner. I chose to ski it in 2004, the year it experienced the worst conditions in 30 years, but that’s a different Birkie story (see “My Norwegian Nightmare,” Cross Country Skier January 2005).

Anyone familiar with the American Birkebeiner trail will acknowledge that it has its share of hills; some pretty big. Over the years I have developed a comfort level skiing the Birkie trail and its hills. This sense of confidence, I must admit, morphed into a smugness and a bit of a Nordic swagger upon first seeing and skiing the Canadian Birkie trail. “You call these hills? Why where I come from…”

I was soon to learn a lesson in cross country skiing humility.

The Canadian Birkebeiner takes place annually on the second Sunday in February. It’s a 55 kilometer, classic technique race which, like its Norwegian predecessor, requires racers to carry a 5.5 kilogram (12 pound) pack. That’s actually a tad heavier than the Birkebeiner Rennet, which requires a 3.5 kilogram pack. There’s also a division for those who prefer to ski without a pack, the Birkie Lite. But the “with pack” division is where the glory is, and even though the Birkie Lite racers may finish with faster times, the top awards and recognition go to those who skied the 55km with a pack.

Other shorter options are available too, including the 31 km Edmonton Journal Tour, starting and finishing with the Birkie; the 13 km Mini Birkie, a looped course from the Birkie finish area; the 5 km Snow Shuffle, a fun event for novice skiers of all ages; and the 2.5 km Ski With a Real Viking (for kids).

The Canadian Birkebeiner celebrated its 20th birthday in 2007, one year belated because of the cancellation of the 2006 event due to lack of snow -- only the second time in its history organizers were forced to cancel. Ironically, a significant storm only two weeks later provided great late-season skiing in the area, but too late to save the event.

The celebration was also planned to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the legendary 1206 rescue of Prince Haakon that provided the foundation for the creation of the Norwegian Birkebeiner in 1932. During last year’s event, a special category was created, the 55 km with pack, wooden ski division, with 26 skiers accepting that challenge.

The first Canadian Birkebeiner was run in 1985 with only 127 participants. At the time it ran from Devon to Edmonton, Alberta. With subsequent growth it was moved to its current location, about 22 miles east of Edmonton, in 1988.

To date there are six skiers who have participated in every Canadian Birkebeiner: Andrew Lamb, Phil Dunn, Paul Zimmerman, Gerald Streefkerk, George Kriegel and Klaus Huckfeldt. These intrepid racers are acknowledged and honored with the distinction of wearing a special red bib.

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